Report: +2.4C by 2020 leaves Billions Hungry? Scary but Untrue. Inside Story of Good Intentions Gone Wrong (and how the media fell for it)

Food Report Released Knowing the Science Was Wrong

By Stephen Leahy

Jan 19 2011

In the year 2020 climate change will devastate much of the world’s harvest leaving one in five people starving because the global temperature will have shot up an average of 2.4 degrees C a new report released Tuesday shows.

Shocking. Stunning. Scary even. And completely untrue.

Days before the report’s release I told the author Liliana Hisas of the Universal Ecological Fund (FEU), an Argentina-based NGO, it was impossible to get to 2.4 degrees of warming by 2020. Global temperatures have increased 0.8C in the last century and the 64-page report, “The Impacts of Climate Change on Food Production: A 2020 Perspective,” is based on additional 1.6C degree increase in just nine years time.

I asked several climate experts if it was possible to reach a +2.4 degree average global temperature by 2020. Their answer: “No way”.

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The reason is that the oceans absorb 93 per cent of the additional heat being trapped in the atmosphere due to the burning fossil fuels. If we stopped burning all fossil fuels and emitting other greenhouse gases today, the atmosphere would still continue to slowly heat up over the next 50 to 100 years as the oceans released that stored heat.

So ‘thank God for the oceans’ I said to Hisas who is also Executive Director of FEU-US when I explained all this via emails. And in an interview with Hisas on Monday I suggested the report be withdrawn. She refused, saying her organization had worked on the report for more than a year and the science was solid. It was all based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2007 report and had been vetted by Osvaldo Canziani, a former co-chair of the IPCC she said.

Unfortunately Canziani was in hospital and unavailable for an interview.

Food Gap Map 2020 from Report

“The author is confused,” says Scott Mandia, a climate scientist at Suffolk County Community College in New York State.

Over the past 30 years global temperatures have gone up 0.4-0.5C. The IPCC says the current rate of warming is about 0.2C per decade. That’s +1.0 C of warming by 2020 not 2.4C says Mandia. (Mandia’s detailed explanation here)

“There is enough to be concerned about as it is with global warming,” says Andrew Weaver, a climate scientist at the University of Victoria.

“There is no need to offer up outlandish doom and gloom scenarios that are simply wrong,” he says.

I asked Hisas why her organization did the report.

“What we are trying to do is contribute to a better understanding of the impacts of climate change by putting things in a simpler way that people can understand,” Hisas said.

“The public needs to be more concerned about the fact that climate change exists. They need to think about if what they eat today will be possible in 10 years,” she said

“No one is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emisisons in a serious way.”

I can’t disagree with their motivation. Only last December I reported for IPS that studies show 2C warming means disaster for much of Africa with a doubling of grain prices and large areas unable to grow maize. Few people really grasp the world-altering changes that have only just begun.

But the FEU report is based on a false foundation. It will not be 2.4 C in 2020. Several climate scientists told Hisas but they released the report any ways. And many news outlets published the findings without questioning the science, or asking other experts to comment. That says something about the current state of journalism.

And releasing a report an environmental organization knows to be in error says something too: Desperate times, desperate measures. Critics and vested interests actively blocking action and creating false doubts about climate change will likely feast on this report.

Weaver says it will do more harm than good. It’s hard not to agree.

17 thoughts on “Report: +2.4C by 2020 leaves Billions Hungry? Scary but Untrue. Inside Story of Good Intentions Gone Wrong (and how the media fell for it)

  1. This report still fails to acknowledge that the “study” was released to the AAAS site by a PR agency! This was a very obvious intent to influence global policy makers to support “sustainable development” as an international policy issue. There is so little science in the report that one wonders about the agenda of the AAAS in accepting a report from a PR agency in the first place. How gullible can they be?

    • Michael – hiring a PR agency to explain the findings of a report to the media is a common practice. AAAS puts through 400-500 releases a WEEK on an astonishing range of science-related topics. That they missed the error here is not a surprise.

      I was probably the first to tell the NGO they’d got the science wrong and they honestly thought they had it right. The point of the report was to project what the potential impacts of a rise in global temperatures would have on the food supply so your complaint about their being so little science is invalid.

      • OK, Stephen, I’ll buy that, but what is the PR agency’s explanation for going ahead when prominent scientists are informing them that there is a major error — would not a PR agency be aware that all hell could break loose if the report was in error?

  2. Stephen,

    Thank you for your persistence in telling them where they went wrong. It’s good to see good, investigative journalism out there (also e.g. Suzanne Goldenberg from the Guardian).

    One mistake that led to the 2.4 estimate is ignoring the time lag in realizing the full warming, as you note. The other, quantitatively more important reason is that they ignored the compensating (cooling) effect of shiny particles in the air (aerosols).

    I find it hard to square two things you wrote:
    “they honestly thought they had it right” vis a vis
    “releasing a report an environmental organization knows to be in error”

    Their response of not correcting the error, as noted e.g. in Guardian ( ) was likely due to two factors:
    – They still thought it right (or at least were not convinced enough of it being wrong)
    – They felt that stopping the release was impossible at that point (it had already been put on the internet)
    “She [the study’s author Hisas] said the UEF did not intend to withdraw the report. “We are just going to go ahead with it. I don’t have a choice now,” she said. “The scientist I have been working with checked everything and according to him it’s not wrong.” “

    I find it hard to believe that an organization would release a report that they know full well has a glaring massive error in it, and not in a footnote but in the first key finding. Why would they knowingly put their credibility on the line like that?

    • Speaking personally as a former technical editor for Elsevier Science Publishers, B.V., Amsterdam, I can tell you that if someone had informed me of an error of that magnitude in a soon-to-be-released publication, I would have died a death by a thousand cuts until I was absolutely sure the report would not be made public. But that’s just me.

    • Bart. To be clear they indeed thought they had made a major discovery in the data at the beginning but after all of us had weighed in, they weren’t so sure any more. When I asked them if they’d withdraw the report or at least delay to make the correction, they declined saying something like: ‘well at least it will get a conversation going about this important issue’.

      That seemed lame to me at the time and does now.

      As to why they’d knowingly ruin their credibility, I found it hard to believe as well and that’s why I invested 2-3 days of unpaid time trying to convince them.

      So I can only guess their reasoning as I wrote above: “desperate times…desperate measures”.

  3. Tenney. The PR agency’s attitude was: ‘well at least it will get a conversation going about this important issue’.

    It’s a well-known agency but they are also a supporter of the NGO.

    • Yes if that happens. They told me at the time he’d been hospitalized – he is 87. Not heard a peep since but it is more than likely an error either in translation or in his review of the report.

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